Chapter 1 : The Hiding Gentleman
Fitzwilliam Darcy was very put out. As he entered the circulating library in Meryton, he was not in the best of moods. Although it had been a welcome surprise for him to learn that the town had a circulating library—for the Netherfield library's collection was sadly lacking—this happy knowledge was replaced with irritation due to a hasty and secret escape from Netherfield. How he had cursed as he was forced to crouch in hiding in a stable stall so as to avoid being found by Miss Bingley, who was at that very moment looking for him. The stablehand, a young lad, who had witnessed him in that predicament stood immobile, mouth agape. Feeling foolish, Darcy had straightened abruptly, and with a dark frown to cover his embarrassment, told the lad to carry on.
Thus far, he had regretted his decision to accompany his friend, Charles Bingley, to Hertfordshire. It was not the purpose nor the destination that vexed him so, but the company. When he had accepted Bingley's invitation, he was made to understand that he would be assisting his friend in the initial management of Netherfield Park, and this was indeed the case. But what was not mentioned to him, until the day before their departure, was that they would be accompanied by Bingley's sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Louisa Hurst, and the latter's husband, Mr. Hurst. For this he would dearly love to wring Bingley's neck. Had Darcy known this arrangement, he would have made plans to stay not the expected month's time, but only until the placement and initial supervision of a steward, which was not at all difficult since Darcy had already a capable man in mind for the position, it had just been a matter of getting him settled and started.
He would now have to come up with an excuse to cut short his stay, estate matters of his own, Lady Catherine dying, anything that would take him away! He could very well not give the reason that it was Bingley's sisters, particularly Miss Bingley, that Darcy found tiresome.
In his eight and twenty years he was aware—as his parents had instilled it in him—that the Darcy name was one that was distinguished, he knew this as a fact, without, he thought, conceit or vanity. He had experienced the effect of his name and position in society, he knew that he was a match that young females and ambitious mamas wanted for their daughters. Caroline Bingley was one of those females, and Darcy was exhausted from escaping from her.
At the beginning of his friendship with Bingley, which had been some years past, her attentions on Darcy had been moderate, therefore tolerable. She was a handsome woman, fashionable with manners that were pleasing when she saw the need to please. But her fortune and her brother's gradual elevation in society had made her conceited. She was also mean-spirited, this Darcy had glimpsed in the way she gossiped about people of whom she deemed beneath her. She would induce him to join in such conversations, most times he would give noncommittal replies, sometimes he would ignore her completely pretending not to have heard, fully absorbed in his book. Darcy tolerated her because in Bingley he had found a great friend. He did nothing to encourage her, but it had been at the start of the year that she had become more tenacious in her pursuit. He could not, of course, give her the cut direct, but really it was getting out of hand.
An hour after their arrival at Netherfield, his valet had come to him and, with a grave countenance, informed him that he had told the housekeeper to transfer his master to another bedchamber. Darcy had asked why with not so little curiosity, although he had complete trust in Dawson—the man having been with him for ten years now and was quite capable of looking out for his personal needs and interests—he had rarely not consulted with Darcy outside of his dress and toilet. Dawson cleared his throat and said that the chambers previously assigned to him were right next to Miss Bingley's and that upon further inspection he had found that the two rooms shared a balcony. Darcy had gritted his teeth, thanking Dawson for saving him the trouble of unwanted and—here he could hear Miss Bingley's voice—accidental, moonlit balcony meetings.
The following days had not been better, she had devised ways to have him escort her in strolls, sit beside her, all full of endless praise, crooning and eye-batting. Darcy could only endure so much without wanting to pull out his hair. Even his sanctuary, the library, had been breached. He knew that Miss Bingley was not an avid reader, it was one of the things she had unknowingly displayed to him from the beginning of their acquaintance. When she entered the library, she had come to him at once and asked his advice on what good book he could recommend. He had suppressed a sigh and had chosen a book at random, noticing as he handed it to her that it was about preventing crop disease. She then sat next to him and opened the book. Mere seconds later, as Darcy feared, Miss Bingley had launched into a nearly one-sided conversation, the book rendered forgotten.
If things persisted in this way, he would have to sacrifice Bingley's society, at least until Miss Bingley found herself a husband, or until he found a wife. Darcy frowned, the latter would definitely not be soon, he sighed.
Darcy knew he needed to get married, he knew his responsibilities to Pemberley, to his name, but alas, it was as if womanhood banded against him and declared that he would never find his ideal wife. Once, his aunt, the Lady Matlock even listed down the names of ladies she felt would suit him, as his eyes scanned the list, so did he reject each face and character that corresponded to the name. She was too silly, this one was prudish, the next too tall. His cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, had laughed at him while his aunt threw up her hands and after that left him alone in that aspect.
Now as he was greeted by the bookseller, Darcy tried to shake off his foul mood, the sight of shelves lined with numerous books definitely helped in this endeavor. Having just recently arrived in Hertfordshire, the Netherfield party had received just a few calls from the local gentry welcoming them to the neighborhood. And thus he was still unknown to the bookseller, Darcy introduced himself, his bearing becoming aloof at the task. He was not very good at meeting new people, he was always wary of the way people treated him when they recognized his name. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when Mr. Clarke, gave him his warm but almost indifferent attention. Darcy settled the fee and soon found himself immeresed in the library's collection.
The place was quiet and he felt almost alone, this he found as a welcome relief. This refuge well lasted for a quarter of an hour when he saw from the window the form of Miss Bingley together with her lady's maid headed in the direction of the library. He groaned inwardly, and looked to the door. He could not possibly escape that way for it was in their direct view.
Feeling trapped, Darcy looked around, there was nowhere to go. Although the circulating library was of an acceptable size, it was by no means large, could he run to the back shelf and hope to go unnoticed? Miss Bingley had the eyes of an eagle, no that would not do. He heard the chime of the bell over the library door, and to his chagrin, heard Miss Bingley's voice as she haughtily replied to Mr. Clarke's greeting. Desperate now, he searched again for an escape. To his left was a table that held some books on display, it was covered by a black table cloth which ran down to the floor. Mentally cursing Caroline Bingley, he scrambled under the table, trying to make as little noise as possible. He feared that the table would not accommodate the length of his legs—for he was a tall man—so he compressed further, and in the process bumped his head against the top of the table, he cursed more savagely. The sound of footsteps caused him to freeze, from what he could see beneath the edge of the table cloth, it appeared that a lady was approaching. He could only see the shoes and the hem of the gown, but judging by its color, he knew it to be Miss Bingley, she was very fond of the color orange. He stayed very still. She moved closer, Darcy felt his nose itch, the floor beneath him was very dusty.
"He is not here! Are you sure, it was here that he was seen entering?" Miss Bingley demanded of her maid.
"Yes, ma'am, the lad I asked said it was not half an hour ago."
"A lad! You should know better than to believe a mere boy! You have sent me on a fool's errand!"
"Begging your pardon, ma'am."
A loud hmph followed by another sharp command had mistress and maid quitting the establishment entirely.
Darcy exhaled in relief. Carefully, he poked his head from under his hiding spot.
"She is gone, I believe it is safe to come out now." Came a soft, amused female voice.
Surprised, Darcy banged his head on the table once again. He shut his eyes and considered not moving at all. He felt heat rise up to his face, the day could not get any worse than it already was. He sighed resignedly, then with more care, he poked his head out and saw a lady seated in a small reading alcove that was obscured from view of the shelves. Indeed, you could only see it from the area of the display table at a certain angle. Gathering what little dignity he had left, Darcy crawled out of the table and stood up, commanding his whole height, and fixing his haughtiest expression, he addressed the lady.
"Thank you for that information, madam." With a bow, he started in the direction of the door.
"Pardon me, sir, but you might want to..." with a serious expression, she made a brushing movement towards her hair. "It must have been from when your head hit the table."
Darcy stood unable to move, he realized his jaw was clenched. He could not believe what was happening.
"Oh, here." The lady stood up and from her reticule procured a small pocket mirror, she walked to him, hand outstretched, bearing the pocket mirror.
Darcy blinked. Of its own accord, his hand accepted the item. Looking at it for some moments, he then trained his eyes towards its owner. Up close, he saw her face clearly. He stared. He felt something from within him unfold.
"You are meant to look into it."
I was meant to look at you. Where had that thought come from? He gave himself a mental shake, then studied her closely, she was laughing at him! Darcy could swear to this though she had on a completely straight face. It was the twinkle in her dark eyes that gave her away. And such eyes, such a face, his mind thought admiringly.
"Sir, do you need assistance?"
He realized he had been staring at her. Shaking himself, Darcy cleared his throat. He took a hasty look in the mirror and self-consciously fixed his hair as best he could. He then handed back the mirror to her.
"I thank you, madam." It was all he could say.
"Not at all, I am happy to be of assistance." She smiled, cheekily, in Darcy's opinion.
He felt like a fool. Fighting the sudden desire to stay in her company, he fisted his hands. He must leave lest he endure another mortification. "Good day, madam." He bowed and turned.
"Oh, and you might want to dust your sleeves."
Darcy winced, but walked steadily on, pretending not to have heard her. He walked straight out of the library, muttering a hurried thank you to Mr. Clarke.
"Well, really." Elizabeth giggled silently, it was a struggle to stifle her laughter. She had never been so diverted since—well she could not think of any recent incident that could compare to this. What a silly man, she thought. Quite handsome too. Elizabeth chuckled. A handsome, silly, hiding gentleman. Yes, she would call him that; the Hiding Gentleman.
The Meryton assembly was hot. With its closed windows and crush of people, it felt like summer inside. This was all that Elizabeth could think of at the moment. Due to the insufficient number of male partners, Elizabeth was obliged to sit out a set. Jane was on the dance floor—no surprise there—her other sisters with her mother were somewhere in the assembly hall, and her dear friend Charlotte Lucas was called upon by her father, Sir William Lucas. But despite the heat, and despite her missing a dance, Elizabeth was enjoying herself.
Not very much happened in Meryton, certainly not the type of amusement and excitement one could find in Town, and it was because of this that any gathering, public or private, was one that people flocked too. She watched the dancers, watched as friends, acquaintances, and strangers moved in time to the tune the band played. She found enjoyment in this, in watching people, she could say that she loved to study people. Whether at times they were ridiculous, irritating, intelligent or winsome, she always was diverted. And for the former two, she could never resist goading them. But because this was done so playfully and so charmingly, they never took offense, nor sometimes even noticed. The ones close to her of course knew what she was about. Charlotte for one had told her laughingly that one day someone would do the same to her, and it was for them to see whether Elizabeth would know what was happening.
She fanned herself, really the heat was getting to be unbearable, she felt beads of sweat forming on her back. Standing up, she decided to look for some refreshments. If this were a private ball, and if it were summer, one might find some ices, but alas, she would have to settle for something plainer.
A few moments later, Elizabeth found herself strolling out the door of the assembly hall's balcony, a glass of negus in hand. The coolness of the drink together with the crispness of the night served to cool Elizabeth sufficiently. A few minutes would do it, she thought, lest she catch a cold. She smiled, she could hear her mother's voice in her mind. Where is your wrapper, Lizzy? You will catch your death, you obstinate girl! Chuckling to herself, she walked the length of the balcony. Away from the door, the music was somewhat muted, she moved to rest against a dark corner but stumbled back in surprise as she encountered a couple locked in an embrace. Eyes huge, she gasped. The embarrassed, interrupted couple quickly broke apart at seeing her and fled. Elizabeth backed away, fighting down laughter. When she had moved some distance, she hastily turned around—and collided against a man's solid chest. Out of balance, she grasped at the man to prevent herself from falling. Just as she did, he caught her by the shoulders, and in the process the negus spilled on both their garments. Slightly out of breath, Elizabeth found her balance, she looked up and saw the face of the Hiding Gentleman. They stared at each other, both stunned, his hands still holding on to her shoulders, her hand still grasping his arm. He really is handsome, she thought. The sound of approaching footsteps broke the silence. A lady emerged from the door. Before he could stop himself, Darcy flinched at the sight of her. They hastily separated.
Miss Bingley, he groaned inwardly. She had been excessively tiresome that evening, he had just escaped dancing with her as they had thankfully arrived in the middle of the set, he quickly excused himself with the reason of obtaining the ladies some refreshments. He left without waiting for an answer, he really had to get away from her constant flattery. He had heard her call out that she would accompany him, but he forged on ahead pretending not to have heard her. Seeing the balcony door, he had hoped to lose her there.
Elizabeth could not stop the humor from showing on her face, she giggled, for she definitely saw the humor in this situation. Darcy looked at her, his eyes showing irritation, then suddenly turning beseeching as the figure of the woman stopped outside the door, they had not yet been seen, but if she walked forward they could hardly be missed.
Help me! What his mouth did not say, his eyes did. They were almost wild with alarm.
Elizabeth took pity on him and hastily grabbed his hand. For whomsoever the lady was, there was no doubt that she came off as absolutely predatory—in a husband-hunting way—she thought laughingly, a fox hunting its prey. She had never had the opportunity to help a distressed gentleman before, and she was definitely going to see this through.
"This way, come with me!"
Remembering the corner of the embracing couple, Elizabeth hurriedly pulled at Darcy. She pointed to the dark corner. "Be still, I will stand in front of you."
Darcy obeyed without question. It was like a dream to him, his mind questioned if it was really happening. He was being rescued by the same lady who saw him hiding in the circulating library. What kind of idiot must she think me! Damn Miss Bingley! Good god, what am I doing? He cursed under his breath.
"Hush, if you please!" Elizabeth hissed.
She stood half a yard away from the corner, the shadows were deep enough to hide Darcy if he stayed unmoving. She took a deep breath and checked her excitement at this unique task. Feigning serenity, she put the empty glass she still held to her lips just as Miss Bingley walked to their direction. The other woman looked about briskly, then seeing her, straightened.
"Good evening." Elizabeth said demurely. She could not make out her face very well. But from her demeanor, she could tell that the other woman was disappointed and not a little frustrated. From the inadequate lighting in the balcony, she faintly registered the color of her gown, a fox-like orange, predator indeed, she thought smiling inwardly. She took more pity on her Hiding Gentleman, thus squaring her shoulders at an attempt to better cover him.
Miss Bingley nodded regally in reply to her greeting. Shifting her glance away from Elizabeth, she scanned the balcony for some more moments then left. Elizabeth could no longer maintain her role, she dearly needed to let out her laughter. Biting the insides of her cheeks, she let past a few more seconds before she turned to Darcy.
"She is gone, I believe it is safe to come out now."
The exact same words she used in the library, Darcy recalled. He suspected that she intended it, and that she was laughing at him again. He did not know whether to laugh with her or to cry. Thus, as he had always done in uncertain situations, he collected himself and produced a cool countenance. He moved from the shadows in his most distinguished manner.
Elizabeth pointed to where the balcony took a turn. "Around that corner is a flight of stairs that leads to the hall."
Darcy clenched his jaw. You might have told me that earlier instead of letting me hide like a fool. Instead he inhaled deeply. "I thank you for your assistance, madam."
Elizabeth bit her lip. Really, one could only suppress so much laughter. Her cheeks hurt from keeping back.
"Not at all, sir, the pleasure was all mine."
Darcy narrowed his eyes. Elizabeth beamed at him.
With a stiff bow, he walked towards the stairs. Once he was out of sight, Elizabeth covered her mouth and let out the laughter that threatened to overcome her.
The dance had just ended, as Elizabeth separated from her partner, Charlotte appeared by her side looking excited.
"Lizzy, our new neighbors are in attendance."
"Oh, so the very famous Mr. Bingley was true to his word about coming to the assembly, how gracious of him!" She craned her neck to look for newcomers. "What is he like, Charlotte? For Papa was not a very good source of gossip, even after Mr. Bingley's visiting him we could only learn so much. Aside from handsome and rich, please say something else!" Her eyes rolled.
"He is very amiable, very pleasing, with such easy manners that I am sure will make him most sought out in Hertfordshire. His sisters are, in my opinion, somewhat too pleased with themselves, although civil enough in their address. His brother-in-all certainly looks the part of a gentleman, but he fell asleep so soon into our company that I hesitate to describe him any further. Oh, but his friend, Mr. Darcy! Ten thousand a year, Lizzy!"
"I suppose he is handsome, for nothing can make a man more handsome than ten thousand a year!"
"Oh, Lizzy, but he is handsome, and tall as well. Though he hardly spoke, and he took tea by the window, so I can hardly say anymore."
Elizabeth lifted her brows.
"I have started to hear gossip about him being proud and conceited." Charlotte said hesitantly.
"But I dare not base my opinion of him on idle gossip. I shall have to know him better." Seeing the look forming on Elizabeth's face, Charlotte shook her head smiling.
Intrigued, Elizabeth looked forward to studying these new personalities, most especially the talked about Mr. Darcy. Well, let us see if he can be laughed at!
"Your mother wants you, Lizzy." Charlotte interrupted her thoughts. "You are to make that acquaintance now, I imagine."
Elizabeth turned to see that indeed, her mother and sisters, with giggles so pronounced, had come to get her. Elizabeth stifled a sigh, she caught Jane's eye and pursed her lips. Jane smiled at her serenely, shaking her head slightly.
Charlotte accompanied them, as they neared the newcomers, her friend discreetly pointed out Mr. Bingley, his sisters, Mr. Hurst and Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth studied them all, but for the last gentleman for she could not see him properly. He stood slightly behind and faced the window to his side, and as the lighting in that area was not very good at all, most of his face was cast in shadow.
Sir William Lucas started by introducing Mr. Bingley, the Bennet ladies bowed and smiled, he seemed perfectly amiable, Elizabeth thought approvingly. She noticed how almost immediately Mr. Bingley's attention focused on Jane. She fought the urge to elbow her sister who stood demurely, she would save the teasing for later.
Gesturing to each one, Sir William proceeded. "Mrs. Hurst, Mr. Hurst, Miss Bingley..."
Elizabeth's gaze went to Mr. Bingley's younger sister, she seemed vaguely familiar. Her mind registered her gown, orange. Like a fox's fur. Her thoughts clicking, she felt an inexplainable excitement.
"...And Mr. Darcy."
She moved slightly forward to better see the one they called Mr. Darcy, at the same time he turned from the window and moved forward. As he started to bow, their eyes locked, surprise and not a little embarrassment reflected in his, amusement and mischief reflected in Elizabeth's. Mr. Darcy was the Hiding Gentleman! A hysterical laugh welled in Elizabeth's throat and threatened to choke her.
Hello, Darcy and Elizabeth fans! I had not yet planned on starting a new story, since I have a chapter or two to go to finish In Pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet. But this one just appeared out of nowhere, the scenes kept flashing in my mind until I had no choice but to write them down. I intend for this story to be a lighter read, some fun and fluff, if you will. Please tell me what you think so far. Thank you very much and I hope you enjoy it! :D